Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, 7 June 1934, Knoxville, Tennessee
Daughter of Jones and Yolande Cornelia Giovanni; children: Thomas
Nikki Giovanni did not have the kind of poverty-stricken, uncertain childhood typical of a number of other black writers. Hers was a close family enriched by loving relatives. While at Fisk University, she reinstated a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been forbidden to operate on campus. After her 1967 graduation with an honors degree in history, she planned the first Black Arts Festival in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. As an extension of her community activism, with assistance from a Ford Foundation grant she attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work; she later enrolled in Columbia University's School of Fine Arts. In 1968, Giovanni received a National Foundation for the Arts grant; she was then teaching English at Queens College and continuing her activist work in the black community. A year later, Giovanni became an associate professor at Livingston College, Rutgers University.
Although Giovanni desired children, she had no wish to be married; in 1969, determined to succeed as a single mother, she bore her son Thomas Watson Giovanni. Her 1971 book, Spin a Soft Black Song (reprinted 1987), written for black American children, was dedicated to him. A subsequent book of poems for children (Vacation Time, 1980) and poems in other books reveal her intense dedication to her family life. In Sacred Cows and Other Edibles, she devotes a large section of an autobiographical essay to the joys and frustrations of living with her then fourteen-year-old son.
Though she is best known as a revolutionary poet who writes poems asking, "Nigger / Can you kill?," Giovanni is also a very private, very personal poet. She had been creating stories since her childhood and had published a few poems in various magazines, but she didn't realize a notable literary success until the publication of her first book of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968). This and Black Judgement (1968) place the individual in the middle of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Even in this early volume Giovanni is trying to balance her own personal concerns (mostly with love) with the pressing concerns of the group, and she is searching for the exact role she can play in the revolution.
In Re-Creation (1970, 1973), one critic has said there is a new lyricism, but the feelings expressed are "less parochial and more universal in their blackness." My House (1972) explores the "rooms inside" and the "rooms outside." The first section is filled with vividly endearing reminiscences about family, friends, and lovers. The poems are about napping, nighttime, sleeping, cuddling, soothing hot baths, and loving. There is a groping, though contented, aloneness (which is different from loneliness) about most of the poems. In "The Rooms Outside," however, Giovanni ventures out of the sheltering cocoon of the nest into the harsher realities of life. The poems here are disturbing, harder to understand, the tone more impersonal and factual.
Ego-Tripping, and Other Poems for Young People (1973, 1993) was written for adolescents. One critic found the poems "sly and seductive, freewheeling and winsome, tough, sure and proud." Here, as everywhere, the author reveals "a boundless enthusiasm for the essences of black life."
Women and Men (1975) includes poems written between 1970 and 1975. The section "The Women" consists mainly of startling, honest portraits that define black womanhood. "And Other Places" contains several short, vivid images of life in Africa.
Giovanni has also published prose. The subtitle of Gemini (1971), explains it all: "An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First 25 Years of Being a Black Poet." Here Giovanni uses her incredible imagination to blend fact with fiction, myth with history, hindsight with perhaps no sight. As with most of her works, the personal accompanies the impersonal so that there are not only touching autobiographical chapters but also critical and political chapters about Charles Chesnutt, as the father of black literature, and about the oral tradition and history of blacks.
Her book jackets call Giovanni "our most widely read living black poet," and indeed her many volumes of poetry, a book of essays, and several recordings attest to her continued popular appeal. In the 1980s and 1990s her alternately provocative and elegant speeches keep her in demand as a public speaker and have helped earn her the title "Princess of Black Poetry."
Giovanni's close family is featured in a few sketches in Sacred Cows and Other Edibles (1988), and Those Who Ride the Night Winds (1982) is composed primarily of meditations: on public figures, personal friends, social injustice throughout American history, and loved relationships. The book is an innovative experiment in form. The pieces are written in short paragraphs, punctuated with ellipses. As such, they have the telegraphic immediacy of Emily Dickinson's dash-punctuated poems, as if the poet's thoughts are scribbled down as they flash across her mind. At the same time, the form implies an uncertainty, a care lest the reader miss a subtlety of thought or image. Dedicated to those courageous people "who in sonic solitude or the hazy hell of habit know—that for all the devils and gods…life is a marvelous, transitory adventure," these poems are written for Lorraine Hansberry, John Lennon, Robert Kennedy, Billie Jean King, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Phillis Wheatley. Of the latter, Giovanni writes, "The critics…from a safe seat in the balcony…disdain her performance…reject her reality…ignore her truths… . How dare she.… Why couldn't she…be more like…more like.… The record sticks.… Phillis was her own precedent."
In Racism 101 (1994, 1995) the poet continues to surprise readers with her range of viewpoints, again in prose. Examining American life from her perspective as an introspective, educated, independent-minded black woman, Giovanni ranges in her focus from reminiscences on her childhood to the role of education and her dismay over the attitudes of affluent African Americans like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and their rejection of the affirmative action policies that enabled their success. While Racism is classic Giovanni in its provocative, sometimes intimate, but often totally unapologetic political slant, she provides a balance with her edited collection Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories about the Keepers of Our Traditions (1994, 1996). Compiled for both children and adults of many cultural and ethnic traditions and containing works by authors ranging from writers Gloria Naylor and Kyoki Mori to civil rights leader Mary Elizabeth King, the volume refrains from the sentimentality usually bestowed upon well-loved older relatives and treats grandmothers as women valuable for their personal insight and their ability to place daily trauma's into a perspective based on strong traditions.
Whether in prose or poetry, Giovanni continues to create an honest, charming, idiosyncratic, and alert persona. Her voice now marks the pulse, not only of black America, but of the country's diverse peoples and cultures. She has been praised highly and damned highly, but Giovanni lives on, ego-tripping, "flying high like a bird in the sky." She has the power to anger, to humor, and to bring tears to the reader's eyes; much of her power lies in her ability to negotiate distances between herself and the reader. Giovanni is a product of the chaotic 1960s, but she manages to retain her individuality, while urging others to recognize their obligations to the black cause. She is at her best when she is private and personal, but she is a multidimensional poet who records the pulse of life for the benefit of all.
All I Gotta Do (1970). Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis (1970). Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement (combining the two former books, 1970, 1972). Night Comes Softly: An Anthology of Black Female Voices (editor, 1970). A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974, 1983). James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni: A Dialogue (1975). Old Thoughts, New Voices (1982). Appalachian Elders: A Warm Hearth Sampler (editor, with C. Dennison, 1992). Conversations with Nikki Giovanni (edited by V. Fowler, 1992). Covers (1993). Knoxville, Tennessee (1994). The Genie in the Jar (1996, 1998). The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (1996). Shimmy, Shimmy, Shimmy Like My Sister Kate (editor, 1996). The Sun is So Quiet (1996). Blues: For All the Changes—Poems (1999). Grand Fathers: An Anthology (1999).
Carroll, R., I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black American Women Writers (1994). Evans, M., ed., Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation (1984). Fowler, V., ed., Conversations with Nikki Giovanni (1992). Fowler, V. C., Nikki Giovanni (1992). Gaffke, C. T., ed., Poetry Criticism: Excerpts From Criticism of the Works of the Most Significant and Widely Studied Poets of World Literature (1997). Georgoudaki, E., Class, Race, and Gender Consciousness in Gwendolyn Brooks' and Nikki Giovanni's Poems for Children (1990). Georgoudaki, E., Race, Gender, and Class Perspectives in the Works of Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde (1991). Hufnagel, J., "Seeing Things as We Are: The Universal in the Poetry of Nikki Giovanni" (thesis, 1992). Jago, C., Nikki Giovanni in the Classroom: "The Same ol' Danger But a Brand New Pleasure" (1999). Lee, D. L., Dynamite Voices: Black Poets of the 1960s (1971). Rediger, P., Great African Americans in Literature (1996). Smith, J. C., ed., Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference (1993). Strickland, M. R., African-American Poets (1996). Tate, C., ed., Black Women Writers at Work (1983). Weixlmann, J. and C. J. Fontenot, eds., Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literacy Criticism (1986). Whitlow, R., Black American Literature: A Critical History (1973).
Black Literary Criticism (1992). CB (April 1973). CP (1975). Crowell's Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry (1973). DLB (1985). FP (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
African American Review (Fall 1994, Spring 1995). Black Issues in Higher Education (Jan. 1993). Black World (Feb. 1971). Book World (Feb. 1994). Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (July 1994). CLAJ (Sept. 1971). CSM (1 May 1974). Ebony (Feb. 1972). Essence (Mar. 1994, May 1999). Harper's Bazaar (July 1972). Ingenue (Feb. 1973). MELUS (Winter 1982, Winter 1994). NYTBR (5 May 1975). PW (1999).
—LISA CARL AND PAMELA SHELTON